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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 9 Slavs as Subjects and Citizens
Richard Taruskin

Having established a type, Balakirev went on to develop it. Six years later, in 1864, he produced a second Overture on Russian Themes that marked as great an advance over his first in formal scope and symphonic procedure as the first had marked over Kamarinskaya. At the same time it exhibited a new determination on the composer's part to purify the national character of his style. In their symbiosis these two traits marked a new stage in the emergence of oak from acorn, because in conjunction they led to an unshakeable perception of programmatic content in the music.

In Kamarinskaya and in Balakirev's first Overture, the motivating impulse (hence the content) could be simply construed as entertaining song and dance. But the second Overture exhibited such a reweighting of priorities in favor of process—transition and development, departure and arrival—as to imply a narrative content, or what Balakirev later termed (after Berlioz) “instrumental drama.” When such a piece is based upon characteristic material of any kind, the question immediately raised is not just “What is it?” but “What is it about?”

To use the more precise vocabulary of the music theorist Leonard B. Meyer, the “kinetic-syntactic” processes of Balakirev's Second Overture are so highly developed as inevitably to lend a “connotative” dimension to its musical material.18 When that material is so obviously national, the piece no longer seems to be a Fantaisie pittoresque guided solely (as Glinka said he had been guided) by “innate musical feeling.” It means something. It is in some sense—but what sense?—a statement about Russia. It is this programmatic element, brought about by the conjunction of a highly elaborated and kinetic structure with a highly characteristic thematic content, that made possible Balakirev's authentic and powerful musical nationalism.

In the years immediately following the composition of his first Overture, Balakirev had made a close study of Russian folk songs with an eye toward their creative exploitation. Dissatisfied with the quality of existing publications, he made his own collecting expedition along the Volga River, Russia's Mississippi, in the summer of 1860. The songs he collected in the Russian heartland were issued in an epoch-making volume of forty arrangements—Balakirev's Sbornik russkikh narodnïkh pesen (“Anthology of Russian folk songs”)—in 1866.

The most significant aspect of the collection was the technique of harmonization that Balakirev worked out for it. The method preserved two aspects of the folk original that Balakirev particularly prized: first, the diatonic purity of the minor mode (both the natural minor and what Balakirev christened the “Russian minor,” corresponding to what is otherwise known as the Dorian mode); and second, the quality of tonal mutability (peremennost’ in Russian), whereby a tune can seem to oscillate between two equally stable points of rest, as if two tonics. These often coincided with the ordinary relationship of tonic to relative major or minor, but just as often the relationship involved the lower neighbor to the tonic in the minor mode, a degree for which there is not even an ordinary “Western” name. (Most often it is called the flat seventh since it lacks the sharpening it would receive in the harmonic or melodic minor.) In most previous collections of folk songs, and in most art music that quoted folk tunes, both of these features had been obscured by the use of the harmonic minor and of secondary dominants (or dominant embellishments). These devices Balakirev virtually banished from his harmonizations, as may be seen in Ex. 9-12, which reproduces from Balakirev's book a protyazhnaya or slow melismatic folk song cast in the Russian minor pitched on D. There is not a sharp or flat in sight, and the first cadence is made to C, the peremennost’ tone. There is no chord that can be called a proper dominant. The cadences to D are introduced by the minor V, which lacks a leading tone, and in measure 6 the minor V and the major IV, precisely the chords the harmonic minor is designed to avoid, are placed side by side, lending the music a modality that contradicts and tries to neutralize conventional tonal expectations. In 1867, while in Prague for the production of Glinka's operas, Balakirev had the satisfaction of hearing a local conservatory professor pronounce his harmonizations ganz falsch (all wrong).

National Becomes Nationalist

ex. 9-12 Protyazhnaya pesnya (melismatic folk song) from the Nizhny-Novgorod District, as harmonized in Miliy Balakirev, Sbornik russkikh narodnïkh pesen (St. Petersburg, 1866).

Ex. 9-13 shows the three songs Balakirev chose from his anthology (slightly in advance of its publication) for use in the second Overture, with the motives (p, q, r, and s) that will be extracted for development enclosed in brackets. For the slow introduction Balakirev picked a wedding song in the Russian minor (“There was no wind, then suddenly it blew…”), and for the Allegro he chose two khorovod or round-dance tunes: “I'm off to Constantinople,” in the major, which will function as the first theme, and “Merry Kate, black-browed Kate,” in the natural minor, for use as the second theme. (The Overture also contains a graceful theme of Balakirev's own invention, which functions as a close or codetta in the exposition and the recapitulation.)

National Becomes NationalistNational Becomes Nationalist

ex. 9-13 Themes from Miliy Balakirev's second Overture on Russian Themes (1864), as printed in his anthology Sbornik russkikh narodnïkh pesen

It should be emphasized that the harmonic style of these settings, which colored not only Balakirev's Overture but any number of other compositions that came out of the school he founded, was Balakirev's personal invention. It is not a folk style at all; actual peasant harmonizations sound nothing like them, and Balakirev probably knew that as well as he knew that his “Georgian Song” (Ex. 7-19b) did not sound truly Georgian. But the style is instantly recognizable to connoisseurs of art music as generically Russian thanks to its thorough assimilation into the later compositional practice not only of Balakirev himself but that of his followers Rimsky-Korsakov, Musorgsky, and Borodin. Rimsky-Korsakov, who became a great and famous teacher, passed it along in turn to his many pupils. So it may not be an authentically peasant or folk style, but it is indeed the authentic and distinctive style of the New Russian School, alias moguchaya kuchka.

And it not only governed local harmonizations like those in the folk song anthology, but when used in large-scale instrumental compositions also controlled the long-term tonal organization in a novel and original (hence identifiably “Russian”) manner. The slow introduction of the second Overture (Ex. 9-14a) is a case in point. Like the wedding song in Kamarinskaya, the one in the second Overture begins with a unison statement, but the final pair of measures is fully harmonized. The whole gesture is then immediately repeated, forming parallel periods. The cadence of the first period is harmonized very much like the setting in the folk song anthology: a plagal cadence through a major IV, evoking Russian minor. The second period has a different termination, however: the pair of horns picks up the A♭ (the lower neighbor or peremennost’ tone), and the continuation is transposed down a step so that the A♭ is tonicized in mm. 23–25, but again through a plagal—that is, dominantless—cadence.

Thus the tonal mutability of the original melody is reinforced through a tonal progression. Indeed, in keeping with his general avoidance of dominant harmony in the minor mode, Balakirev does not employ a single authentic cadence over the whole course of the introduction, only plagal ones. They are often deployed in chains suggesting the use of a term like “applied subdominant.” At the very end of the introduction, for example, a progression along the circle of fourths (or fifths in reverse) leads back from the peremennost’ tone (A♭) to the tonic for the final cadence: A♭–E♭–B♭. To a degree unprecedented in music Russian or otherwise, tonal properties of folk music, and techniques derived from them, have been allowed to invade and govern those of art music.

National Becomes Nationalist

ex. 9-14a Miliy Balakirev, second Overture on Russian Themes, mm. 5–25

National Becomes Nationalist

ex. 9-14b Miliy Balakirev, second Overture on Russian Themes, mm. 169–74

The second Overture is cast, like the first, in the form of a sonata allegro embedded within a larger ABA form created by a concluding reprise of the slow introduction in the form of a coda. Overall, the key relations are Lisztian, showing Balakirev to be, like Smetana (however profoundly they may otherwise have differed), a musical descendant not just of Germany but of New Germany. The sonata allegro, in D major, is sandwiched between slow outer sections in B♭ minor; and the development section, beginning in F♯ major, completes a full rotation around the Lisztian circle of major thirds. Not at all by accident, moreover, the main keys of the piece—D and B♭—are the very ones on which the notable modulation in Kamarinskaya had turned, and Balakirev pays it further tribute by exactly modeling the transition into the first theme after the introduction on Glinka's striking modulation (compare Ex. 9-10c with Ex. 9-14b)—with one highly characteristic difference: Balakirev goes directly from to I, eliding out the dominant harmony and (by touching G in the bass right before the first theme begins) turning the progression into what amounts to a plagal cadence.

In his second Overture on Russian Themes Balakirev really did what Rubinstein, for one, thought impossible: he constructed an extended, sustained symphonic composition almost wholly out of folkloric material with no loss of scale or gravity. Unlike Kamarinskaya or the first Overture, the piece is ample, even imposing in its dimensions and its complexity of design. All its themes are presented Eroica-fashion, with momentary departures leading back to climactic statements. Its tonal tensions, while not always classical, are urgently dynamic. Perhaps most conspicuously of all, Balakirev constructs marvelous mosaics and collages out of motives p, q, r, and s at transitional and developmental moments, of which there are so many.


(18) Leonard B. Meyer, “Universalism and Relativism in the Study of Ethnic Music,” Ethnomusicology IV, no. 2 (1960): 49–54.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Slavs as Subjects and Citizens." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2015. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-009006.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 Slavs as Subjects and Citizens. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 30 Nov. 2015, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-009006.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Slavs as Subjects and Citizens." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 30 Nov. 2015, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-009006.xml